Caste, like race, is a historically generated disadvantage that is reproduced in the present through ongoing economic, social, and political oppression. Such an understanding of caste shows us why it is akin to race in the US—and why it not only persists but flourishes in times of the far right’s ascendance, both in India and abroad.
Because casteism results in material oppression in the workplace, it often produces discrimination of all kinds. Anti-caste activism shows that working people rising up to demand dignity for all is one of the best weapons against casteism—which is why labor unions are in an advantageous position to fight it in US culture.
In India, the castes at the bottom of the ritual hierarchy designated by the Indian government as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Backward Castes make up around 90 percent of the population and constitute the majority of the poor.
These caste proportions are reversed in the US. There are an estimated 5.4 million South Asians in the US. The majority are of Indian origin at over four million, followed by Pakistanis at approximately 500,000. It is one of the fastest growing immigrant communities in the US, growing by 40 percent in seven years—from 3.5 million to 5.5 million between 2010 and 2017. A recent survey on Indian Americans estimates that up to 80 percent of the diaspora population are from an “upper caste” background.
This places the number of immigrants from the Indian “lower castes” in the US at around 400,000. Significantly, nearly half of respondents in this survey identified with a caste grouping, underscoring caste as an important social marker and identity among South Asians in the US.